Michener, James (1907-1997)

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Michener, James (1907-1997)

With the passing of James Michener in 1997, America lost one of the most prolific American novelists and outstanding philanthropists of the twentieth century. In his popular, although often lengthy books—spanning 50 years of almost continuous output—Michener explored places as diverse as the South Pacific, South Africa, Spain, Afghanistan, Poland, Japan, Israel, the Caribbean, Hungary, the American West, Chesapeake Bay, Alaska, and Outer Space … to name but a few. Through reading Michener, millions of people worldwide were introduced to these places via a dramatic narrative tied to the geographical and historical events of the chosen place. His experiences gained from a lifetime of wandering the globe, absorbing the lives and cultures of ordinary people, became the central focus in his books. In his autobiography, The World Is My Home (1992), he explains that writing to him was a mental discipline, and that his strengths lay in capturing a reader's interest and holding it with a good narrative. He wanted people to see the diversity of human life and understand and accept individual differences. He argued for the universal ideals of religious and racial tolerance, the value of hard work and discipline, and self-reliance. He was often referred to as "America's Storyteller" and his books are rich in characters who reflect the history of their countries.

Every one of Michener's books was a commercial success, beginning with his first published book Tales of the South Pacific (1947), a Pulitzer prize winner. This was a collection of stories dealing with the exploits of men at war in the South Pacific and based upon Michener's own wartime experiences when he was posted to the South Pacific. In it he depicted the tedium, anxiety, and frustrations of individuals caught up in a conflict which was waiting to happen. Adapted for the stage by Rodgers and Hammerstein, it was titled South Pacific (1949) and starred Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. It was a hit on Broadway, becoming one of the longest running musicals (1,925 performances) and later becoming a blockbuster Hollywood film, launching the career of Gwen Virdon.

James Albert Michener was born on February 3, 1907 in New York City. An orphan, he was rescued by Mabel and Edwin Michener of Doylestown, Pennsylvania—the place that became his home during his formative years. His childhood was spent in poverty, which, as he explains in his autobiography The World Is My Home (1992), led to his liberal ideals. At the age of 13, he and a friend, with only a few cents between them, hitchhiked to New York City, thus beginning Michener's love of travel. He enjoyed meeting new people and finding out about cultures vastly different from his Quaker upbringing. His second major work of fiction, The Fires of Spring (1949), deals with a character much like the young Michener—a poor Pennsylvania schoolboy who hitchhikes across America, encountering many different characters and experiences which later become the basis for a writing career.

After graduating with Honors from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia in 1929, Michener became an English teacher. In 1933 he received the Joshua Lippincott fellowship to travel and study abroad, visiting Spain for the first time. In Iberia (1967), he wrote about his intense interest in the people and places of Spain. He returned to teaching in 1936 and became an Associate Professor at Colorado State College of Education, completing his Master of Arts in 1937; Michener was awarded over 30 honorary doctorates during the course of his career.

Although James Michener's two early marriages ended in divorce (Patti Koon, Vange Nord), his third marriage in 1955 to Mari Yoriko Sabawa was not only successful but also influential in his continuing commitment to the arts in America. After her death in 1992, Michener pledged $5,000,000 each to art museums in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and Texas, which had become his home after his monumental epic Texas (1985). With her guidance and his literary success, Michener devoted time and financial support to the arts. Many of Michener's works were adapted for films and television. One of the most memorable of these was Centennial (1976), an epic tale of the history of Colorado which became the longest ever mini-series on television with 26 hour-long episodes.

Michener was outspoken in his beliefs and often took action on the causes in which he believed. In 1950 he visited Japan, just after the Korean War began. This led to his later books The Voice of Asia (1951), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and Sayonara (1954). During the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Michener was in Austria where he assisted dozens of Hungarians to safety, writing of his experiences in The Bridge at Andau (1957). In 1971, he wrote a sympathetic account of the tragic student protests at Kent State University in Kent State: What Happened and Why. In the 1960s he was a John F. Kennedy supporter and he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1962 as a Democrat. In 1972, however, he visited China and Russia as a correspondent travelling with President Nixon, a Republican. His efforts for world peace led to his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 from Gerald Ford. In that year he also launched his television series, The World of James Michener.

In 1996, Fortune magazine ranked Michener among the nation's top philanthropists, estimating that he had donated $24 million dollars in that year alone to charities, art institutes, and institutions of learning.

—Joan Gajadhar

Further Reading:

Becker, George. James A. Michener. New York, Frederick Ungar, 1983.

Michener, James. The World Is My Home. New York, Random House, 1992.

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Michener, James (1907-1997)

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